Hank Lebioda was 3 under par as he stood on the 14th tee in the second round of final qualifying for the U.S. Open in Dallas on Monday. He was five shots off what would be the qualifying number, and with just five holes to play, his chances of qualifying were slim, at best. Not that he had expected to be fighting for a spot anyway. A bout with Covid and the birth of his second child had prevented him from playing any rounds of golf since missing the cut at the Mexico Open in late April. “I was using this as a warmup to get my body back in playing shape,” Lebioda told me on Monday night. And that turned out to be a good plan, because in a few weeks he will be teeing it up at L.A. Country Club in the U.S. Open.
After flying home from the Mexico Open, Lebioda tested positive for Covid. Then, just a couple of weeks later, on May 12, Hank and his wife, Mary, welcomed their second child to the world. So golf took a back seat for a while. For a month, in fact, and when it was time to get back at it, he needed to get back in golf shape.
Sitting 183rd in FedEx points and not in the field this week at Colonial, Lebioda committed to the Korn Ferry Tour event in Knoxville, Tenn. He decided he would use the U.S. Open qualifier basically as a tuneup for that event. At the very least, he knew he was guaranteed 36 holes. It would be an opportunity to get in a lot of work.
After an opening 2-under 68 at Northwood Club, the easier of the two courses, Lebioda stood T-34, well outside the number to claim one of the eight available spots. He was 1 under in his second round, at Bent Tree Country Club, when he arrived at the 168-yard par-3 14th. Lebioda drained a 20-foot birdie putt, then made a 15-footer on the next to move to 5 under for the qualifier. Standing on the tee at the par-5 16th was the first time he really thought he might have a chance. Even then, he knew he needed a miracle finish. “I hadn’t looked at scores, but I thought if I made eagle on 16, I could start to think about it,” he said. His eagle chip came up just short, but he tapped in for birdie. Six under. On the par-three 17th, another great iron and another made putt. Seven. On the 18th, a perfect drive and great approach left him three feet to move to 8 under. “It was the first time I was nervous,” Lebioda said. He rolled it in for his fifth consecutive birdie. He was squarely on the number.
His score proved good enough to get into a five-for-two playoff. He hopped in the car and made the five-mile trek to Northwood for the playoff, which started on the par-4 17th hole. Then a strange thing happened: All four players before Lebioda played their tee shots up the parallel 18th fairway. As the only one to play the hole the traditional way, he stood in the fairway after a perfect 3-wood and asked his caddie, “Are we taking crazy pills?” He then hit a wedge to 10 feet and made the birdie putt to secure a spot in the U.S. Open. He headed for the clubhouse. Jacob Solomon also birdied, the other three went on to battle for alternate spots.
Hank Lebioda hadn’t played a round of golf in nearly a month. He has never played in a major in his seven years as a tour professional. On Monday, he made six consecutive birdies to secure a tee time in the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club. In a 120-player field, he beat, among others, Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ. Lebioda will be joined in L.A. by Sergio Garcia, who will be making his 24th consecutive Open start. Garcia also got through in Dallas, posting a 9-under total.
A major champion and a 29-year-old about to make his first start in a major, grinding through 36 holes (and more) on a Monday in May. This is what qualifying is all about.